By what means can the imagination be activated? By what artifice may its secrets be coaxed to the surface of our consciousness, and made capable of articulation, as an enterprising fisherman might lure a rare specimen from deep waters to the surface? Are there tried techniques, or is it simply a matter of random inspiration? These are questions worthy of consideration.
The Italian writer Alessandro Verri composed a very interesting book that was published in two parts, in 1792 and 1804, that I see as a masterpiece of Romanticism. The work is called Roman Nights, and it is a collection of fanciful conversations with the spirits of some of the great names of Roman antiquity. The narrator, an idealistic and passionate man who venerates Roman history, wanders at night into the recently discovered Tomb of the Scipios, and there experiences a series of visions. Verri provides the details:
It was in that season of the year when the vapors of autumn moisten the earth after the burning heats of summer. The sky, where it gleamed through the piles of snowy clouds, was deeply blue; the parched plants had resumed their former verdure, and the green turf wore the freshness of spring. Instead of the shrill monotonous chirp of the field-cricket, the ear was now saluted by the musical warbling of a thousand birds that wan toned on the balmy air in innocent security, ignorant of the snares of the fowler. At this time there was a rumor in Rome, that the sepulchre of the Scipios, which had been the object of so much useless research, was at length discovered…
At length he approaches the tomb itself:
This accident was not unpleasing; by shutting out all visible images it seemed to lend new vigor to my soul, more deeply devoted to contemplation in the midst of total darkness. The gloomy domains of death seemed to open before me, and again I was seized with the desire of communing with their pale inhabitants…At length every sarcophagus seemed to hold a specter, standing and disclosing the upper part of the body. I saw the head and shoulders of children and young persons, and the upper half of the forms of men. The females with modest demeanor stood shrouded in veils, which some of them drew aside. There were youths whose thick locks shaded their brows; they divided them on their foreheads, or flung them back upon their shoulders; while other specters by their baldness and white hair, seemed to have died in the decline of their years…
I perceived a phosphoric glare in a distant part of the cavern. It accompanied a specter who advanced with a majestic mien, clothed in a white toga, and resembling the consular statues… There, with a diction as careful as possible, I addressed him in Latin: “Hail!” said I, “whosoever thou art, that hast, with such a sublimity of expression, divulged a knowledge so far above my feeble capacity. Although I cannot appreciate all the delicacy and beauty of thy oratory, yet I am sensible that thou hast possessed on earth a super-human eloquence.”
Verri finally learns exactly with whom he is speaking:
The phantom surveyed me fixedly, and smiled graciously, but with undiminished dignity. “What motive,” said he, “leads thee to wander among the tombs, while thy fellow beings are seeking forgetfulness of care in the arms of repose?” “I have been attracted,” I answered respectfully, “To these remains of the dead, as much by a reverent curiosity, as by my admiration of the superior excellence, which the time-honored race, here interred, displayed in their earthly stations. So intent is my mind on them, so exclusively is it filled by the contemplation of their genius and their achievements, as to deny access to every other thought.” These words smoothed the brow of my interrogator; and he said, in a tone of condescension, “Wert thou permitted to converse with any Roman, to whom wouldst thou give preference?” I replied without hesitation, for my answer arose naturally from an opinion long cherished, “To Marcus Tullius Cicero.” “I am he,” said the phantom with fatherly benignity, and in a frank, yet modest manner; “I am that humble Arpinian whom thou seekest.”
There followed a stimulating dialogue on the nature of virtue, and the receding elusiveness of human knowledge. We do not know, of course, whether Verri himself actually experienced the visions he relates, but that not relevant: what matters is the atmosphere, the setting, the method by which Verri was able to coax his imagination to creative fruition. For nothing can be achieved without the imagination. It is the driver of the mind, and the plough that cuts its furrows. Is it any accident that the Latin word for mind, animus, is equivalent to the word for soul? It is not.
As I see it, what enabled Verri to activate his imaginative powers, and produce his masterpiece of Romanticism, was a combination of four factors: (1) the relaxation of the mind, (2) the presence of physical objects connected with his subject, (3) the confidence to commit the resulting impressions to paper, and (4) knowledge of the subject. When we say “relaxation of the mind,” we mean that the mind must be relaxed, and not oppressed by distresses or anxieties. Late at night, or early in the morning, are good times for the promotion of this state. Verri walks at night, when his mind is free to pursue its imaginative voyages. When we say “the presence of physical objects,” we mean that one must physically place himself near something connected with his subject. Let us say a bit more about this, since there are some who may doubt its utility.
I tend to think that environment influences the mind to an extent that is often not fully appreciated. And it is not only environment; sometimes one physical object can stimulate the imagination. If you want to write about some subject, surround yourself with implements, books, or antiquities related to that subject. This is the basis for the belief in psychometry, a form of extrasensory perception which holds that physical proximity, or contact, with some object can pass on certain information related to that object. I do not know if psychometry is a true phenomenon, or a flight of fancy; there are some who believe it be true, and some who believe it to be nonsense. Perhaps its “reality” is not even the point. It may be that it helps to activate the imagination by triggering some unconscious neurological impulses connected to touch, smell, and vision that we do not fully understand. For this reason, we may say that it has its uses for the artist and creator, regardless of its actual scientific veracity.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s weird tale The Leathern Funnel, published in 1902 in McClure’s Magazine, provides an illustration of psychometry. The narrator visits a friend with a house full of rare old objects. He notices an extremely old funnel made of shriveled leather; intrigued by it, he asks his friend its purpose. The friend demurs and smiles, and encourages the narrator to place the item by his bed-table that night during his sleep. Doing this, he says, will give him insight into the artifact’s original purpose. The narrator complies as instructed; in his dream, he is transported into an early 17th century French dungeon, where he is forced to witness a gruesome session of water-torture. The funnel, we learn, was an instrument used to force water down the throats of recalcitrant detainees. It is a gruesome tale, but effective in making its point. There is something to this technique; I think it has much to do with the interplay of sight, smell, and touch on the mind. When we combine these things with proper rest and mental clarity, we can activate the imagination in ways not possible otherwise.
The last two factors stated above—that is, the confidence to write about one’s impressions, and a pre-existing knowledge of the subject matter—should be self-explanatory. One cannot be a writer without having the confidence to write. No curative for this exists; either it is there, or it is not. By “knowledge of the subject matter” I meant this: in order to activate the imagination, one must already be reasonably well-read on the subject on which one wishes to activate his imagination. Bringing together mental tranquility, environment, and physical objects will be of little use if one does not have a firm foundation of knowledge in the subject. Verri, as we see in the passage quoted above, was already proficient in Latin before conversing with the “spirit” of Cicero.
In J.C.F. Grumbine’s Psychometry: Its Science and Law of Unfoldment, written in 1900, contains some interesting observations. They are worth mentioning even if one believes the practice to be pure quackery and nonsense. Readers should keep an open mind, and deploy their powers of reason; sometimes things “work” for reasons that have nothing to do with the beliefs of their adherents. Science does not always show its hand openly. Grumbine believes that a number of conditions should be present for psychometry to have a chance of success. Among these are: purging the body of heavy foods; practicing meditation twice per week to promote the habit of concentration; eliminating anxiety and worry from one’s mind; never psychometrizing when one feels sick; keeping the work area clean, neat, and properly circulating with air; and avoiding promiscuous practices. What are these recommendations, other than ways to relax the mind, and free it from anxieties, sorrows, and distresses? In that sense, we may pronounce them very useful in promoting imaginative industry.
Pliny was aware of the value of dreams. In his Natural History (X.98), he says, “A crucial topic attracts our attention here, and is subject to different evidence from opposing viewpoints. And this is: whether there are examples of pre-existing knowledge in the mind during a state of relaxation, and how they come to be created, or whether it is—like most other things—a random occurrence.” He knows that sleep can reveal much, for he says:
Est autem somnus nihil aliud quam animi in medium sese recessus.
And this means, “Sleep is nothing other than the withdrawing of the mind into its profoundest self.” In a related line of thought, Hippocrates says, in his Aphorisms (VII.18) that “In sleeplessness, convulsions or delirium is a bad sign,” which implies that convulsions or delirium might not be a bad sign—perhaps even a good sign—during sleep. We will close with an interesting example of the creative insight that may come through dreams. And if you, reader, do not agree that this should be seen as “insight,” then we should at least be able to say that it was an achievement of the imagination! According to the Alice Walton’s The Cult of Asklepios, there is an amusing anecdote found on a Greek stele at Epidaurus. A woman, Aristagora of Troezen, went to the temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine whose sanctuary is called an Asklepieion. Her purpose in going there was to seek treatment of an intestinal worm. She slept in the temple, and was there visited by a dream. In her dream, Asclepius’s sons cut off her head while the god himself happened to be away at the city of Epidaurus. The sons were unable to replace her head, and called Asclepius himself to remedy the situation. She then awakened. A priest at the temple also had a vision of her severed head. The next night, in her dream, she imagined Asclepius coming back from Epidaurus to re-attach her head. Apparently with the assistance of this dream, the priest at the temple was then able to remove the worm from her body. The Greek writer Aelian, in his History of Animals (IX.33) also tells a slightly different version of this story. Readers may make of it what they will.
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